Communities that have been harmed by historic and ongoing toxic pollution and contamination deserve justice. By design and neglect, this harm has affected Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color to a much greater extent than white neighborhoods. Whenever municipal development is proposed in these communities, the voices of community members need to be engaged and respected. Key decision makers must invite everyone to the table to work towards a goal of pollution reduction in neighborhoods already experiencing systemic pollution and poor air quality.
The East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis is one of these communities. This neighborhood continuously ranks as having some of the worst air quality in the entire state, and it is still being harmed by one of the most brazen and widespread urban polluters in Minnesota history. An insecticide manufacturer at East 28th St. and Hiawatha Ave. polluted the neighborhood with arsenic from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, requiring a massive cleanup of contaminated residential yards.
In 2016, The City of Minneapolis proposed building a new “Hiawatha Campus” adjacent to the former manufacturing site to house city offices and vehicles for the Public Works department. Early in 2021, the City of Minneapolis published an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) detailing the environmental impacts of the Hiawatha Campus proposal. MCEA filed a response a month later.
Our response was detailed and lengthy, nearly 200 pages. Not only did our staff determine that the City's EAW failed to address key environmental effects, as well as climate change, but also that it failed to examine the impact its proposal would have on existing pollution in the neighborhood as required by law. Even more troubling is the City’s "loud silence regarding the historical environmental racism the residents of the East Phillips neighborhood have endured," MCEA's response states.
An alternative vision for the site, centering around an indoor urban-farm, was developed through a grass-roots, neighborhood-led organization called the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI). Their plan creates clean energy infrastructure, a shared ownership model, and sustainable agriculture. It was a model for environmental justice MCEA committed to supporting through our comment, outreach, and advocacy. After organizing for nearly a decade, the state legislature provided the initial funds needed to purchase the building from the City. EPNI did it! After decades of pollution and harm, this neighborhood will now have the opportunity to use that land and the existing building in a way that reflects the self-determination of the people.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) held two community meetings in February to help the neighborhood digest the City of Minneapolis' 1,000 page Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) conducted on its proposal for the Roof Depot site. MCEA staff also helped residents submit public comments on the City's plan, while EPNI representatives provided details about its alternative urban farm and community center vision for the site.
This event has already occurred. Click above to watch a recording of the Saturday, February 27th session.
As a neighborhood that is 83% Black, Indigenous, and people of color, the East Phillips community would be expected to bear the brunt of the impact for the “greater good,” which is an unacceptable trade-off. Racism has recently been declared a public health emergency in Minneapolis.
- Letter from Erin Niehoff in MinnPost, joined and signed by MCEA
Key Timeline Events
Capital Campaign begins for additional funding
EPNI receives funding from state legislature
During the last days of the 2023 legislative session, EPNI receives funding to buy the Roof Depot site. $4.5 million in the capital investment bill is allocated for the city to relocate a proposed public works facility away from the Roof Depot site. Another $2 million in the bill is dedicated towards the purchase of the site. The community group raises the additional $3.7 million from investors.
MCEA staff lobby legislators in support of the appropriation
Amidst a landmark legislative session, MCEA staff dedicate time to continuing lobby efforts for state funding to realize the community-led vision of the roof depot site.
EPNI hosts an Earth Day rally
MCEA Healthy Communities Program director, Evan Mulholland attends and speaks in a show of support. The rally connects the work being done for the EPNI farm to national and global movements for environmental justice and land sovereignty.
City flags willingness to sell Roof Depot site to EPNI
Meetings between EPNI, state legislators, and Mayor’s office results in a public statement from the City of the Administration’s willingness to sell the site and support the legislative appropriation of funds.
EPNI funding begins journey in the state legislature
Public hearing on appropriations bills to fund EPNI’s purchase of the roof depot property for the indoor urban farm. MCEA staff attend for solidarity and provide administrative support.
Appeal stays building demolition
EPNI’s MERA case was denied. EPNI appeals the decision. The court stayed demolition of the building through an indefinite injunction, allowing time for the court of appeals to schedule a hearing for EPNI's appeal.
Native-led occupation of roof depot site, forcibly broken up by police
On February 21st, a peaceful occupation of the Roof Depot site in protest of the demolition and imminent community harm was broken up by dozens of police officers.
City Council votes to move ahead with demolition despite community opposition
City council votes 7-6 to award $1.6 million dollar demolition contract to Rachel Contracting to tear down the Roof Depot building. Demolition slated to begin in March, 2023.
EPNI and East Phillips community finds proposed compromise doesn't meet their needs
The City offers to split off a small portion of the Roof Depot land parcel for the Urban Farm. However, the agreement does not mitigate the additional pollution and traffic in the neighborhood from the Water Works facility.
Ongoing negotiations don’t meet community needs
Negotiations continue between City Council, Mayor, and EPNI to find a compromise agreement to accommodate both City plans and EPNI’s need for a community space without further pollution in the neighborhood.
Mayor Frey Vetoes City Council
One day after the City Council voted to explore community development of the Roof Depot site, Mayor Jacob Frey exercised his veto power to stymie the Council's decision. Mayor Frey explained he would allow community development to proceed if certain preconditions are met. Community leaders respond by requesting a sit down with the Mayor to find common ground to facilitate a community-led development of the disputed site.
New-Look City Council Again Votes to Suspend Hiawatha Expansion
The newly elected City Council voted 8-5 to again suspend the Hiawatha Expansion to allow further study for conveying the land for community development. The approved measure tasks the City to explore options for developing the property in partnership with community stakeholders, and sets a June 30, 2022 deadline for formal proposals to be submitted.
Minneapolis City Council Flip Flops and Resumes Modified Expansion Project
In a surprise 7-6 vote, the Minneapolis City Council reversed course and elected to proceed with a slimmed down version of the Hiawatha Campus Expansion. Rather than develop the entire site, the Council voted to set aside 3 acres for community development and to initiate an engagement plan with community stakeholders including the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.
City of Minneapolis POGO Committee suspends Hiawatha Expansion
In a 7-6 vote, the Minneapolis City Council partially approved a staff directive led by Cano, Jenkins, Gordan, and Johnson to "suspend all aspects of the City of Minneapolis' proposed Hiawatha Campus Expansion." The motion included a section to grant EPNI exclusive development rights to the 7.5 acre site, but that section failed on a 6-6-1 vote. In a separate vote, the City Council approved the EAW by a 12-1 vote. The Council will finalize the Staff Directive on September 9th.
City Council Discusses the Future of the Roof Depot Site
Today, the City Council debated the future of the Roof Depot site, with council members, Cano, Jenkins, Gordon, and Johnson voicing support for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute-led vision that will add value - and not more pollution - to the East Phillips Neighborhood. The full council debated the financial implications of moving the municipal development elsewhere, and deferred any further action on the development to the Council's Policy & Government Oversight Committee, who will pick-up the debate at its August 18, 2021 meeting.
East Phillips Neighborhood Institute rally to call for environmental justice
Residents and activists gather at Longfellow & 28th St. to demand the City make meaningful progress on environmental injustice and stop the development of the Hiawatha Campus Expansion Project in favor of a community-led vision.
Support for Community-Led Development Continues to Grow
The East Phillips Neighborhood Institute obtains additional key support from state lawmakers Omah Fateh, Patricia Torres-Ray, and Hodan Hassan. The neighborhood group has also been working with the University of Minnesota Law School to develop a business model to facilitate community ownership in the proposed development.
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar declares support for East Phillips Urban Farm concept
In a letter sent to the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar declares support for the community's group's urban farm concept for the Roof Depot site. The City-owned site is currently slated to be developed into a large public works maintenance facility and three-story parking garage, though the City recently put that plan on hold until August 5. If implemented in its place, EPNI's vision, which includes an urban farm, coffee shop, market and affordable housing, would help "address many of the core issues of injustice present" in the majority BIPOC and financially disadvantaged neighborhood, Omar wrote in the letter, which was posted on EPNI's Facebook page.
Minneapolis City Council postpones EAW vote until August
The Minneapolis City Council postponed the vote on the Environmental Assessment Worksheet conducted on the City's staff-led public works Hiawatha Expansion project proposed for the Roof Depot site in East Phillips until August. The delay is in alignment with the City's earlier vote to temporarily suspend all activity on the project so that city-staff can work with East Phillips residents on the development of an alternative, community-based vision for the Roof Depot site. The delay gives the commmunity more time to bolster support for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute's innovative and sustainable urban farm and community center proposal.
Minneapolis City Council approves suspension of public works project at Roof Depot site
In a major victory for East Phillips' community members, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution to suspend work on the City staff-led Hiawatha Expansion project proposed for the neighborhood's Roof Depot site until August 5. The resolution directs city staff to use that time to research the financial impacts of relocating the project to a more suitable ward, and to simultaneously work with East Phillips residents to develop an alternative, community-based vision for the Roof Depot site.
MCEA files response to City of Minneapolis' EAW
MCEA staff filed a roughly 200 page response to the City's EAW. The response points out the EAW's failure to address key environmental effects, climate change and the impacts its proposal would have on existing pollution in East Phillips. It also highlights the city's failure to consider the environmental racism East Phillips has endured for decades.
City Council receives a record amount of comments against the demolition of the Roof Depot
MCEA staff provide online training sessions through Zoom to assist community members in understanding the EAW and how to provide comments. MCEA online action contributes to over 1000 comments received by the City on the EAW.
Minneapolis completes Environmental Assessment Worksheet on proposal
The City of Minneapolis published its Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) on its public works consolidation plans for the Roof Depot site. MCEA staff, alongside other experts, carefully reviewed the 1,000 page document to prepare a response.
Environmental review proposed after site cleanup completed
City of Minneapolis completes environmental remediation work on the former Roof Depot site. City engages a consultant to prepare the Environmental Assessment Worksheet.
Residential cleanup completed
U.S. EPA proposes a “partial deletion” of the residential cleanup Superfund site after completing remediation activities.
City adopts master plan for Roof Depot site
City completes project design and holds community meetings. The community urges the City to adopt a plan that allows for non-municipal use, but the adopted master plan does not provide this opportunity.
Roof Depot site purchased by City of Minneapolis
The City acquires the Roof Depot site for $6.8 million, with the main goal to “relocate water distribution employees and operations to one central site.”
Hiawatha Campus proposed, opposition grows
The City of Minneapolis begins negotiating with the owner of the Roof Depot with the eventual plan of relocating part of its public works department to the site. Around this time, community opposition grows. Neighborhood groups, such as the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, seek to use the Roof Depot site for developing economic opportunities for the community. Visions include an indoor farm and a bicycle shop.
Environmental justice legislation passes
Rep. Karen Clark proposes and the Minnesota Legislature passes a law requiring cumulative and past pollution be analyzed in the vicinity of the CMC Site before the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency can issue a permit.
Residential contamination becomes Superfund site
US Environmental Protection Agency proposes the residential area surrounding the CMC site as a federal Superfund National Priority List site and dozens of yards are cleaned up in the surrounding area between 2008 and 2018.
CMC site redeveloped
Hiawatha Business Center is built on the CMC site after cleanup is completed.
Residential contamination uncovered
Testing of residential yards reveals widespread arsenic contamination in East Phillips and surrounding neighborhoods from the CMC site. Subsequent followup testing reveals that dozens of residential yards in East Phillips pose an acute risk to human health.
Cleanup of the CMC site by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency begins
Site contamination uncovered by road construction
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) discovered the arsenic contamination at the CMC Site in 1994 when investigating the Hiawatha Avenue corridor for reconstruction.
Arsenic liquid spilled on site
A storage tank containing liquid sodium arsenite ruptures at the CMC Site, releasing approximately 3,000 gallons of liquid sodium arsenite onto an area of approximately 1,000 square meters.
Insecticide factory pollutes surrounding neighborhoods with arsenic
Open air conveyor belts used to offload arsenic powder allow arsenic dust to be blown off-site into the surrounding neighborhood. The site is operated by a number of companies throughout the years, and becomes known as the CMC Heartland site.